Sunday, September 07, 2008

Nature's Odds

Monarch Chrysalis -Day 7

The wings of the developing butterfly are clearly seen through the green chrysalis as it enters its second week in this stage. By next week a new butterfly should be feeding on nectar and beginning its flight south for the winter. The inborn knowledge of this simple creature is astounding. Three developing butterflies hang from a screen in the shelter of a lilac tree that grows near our deck. Two remaining caterpillars have been protected in a container from the rains that have drenched our area as the remnants of the last two hurricanes have passed through.

In a graveyard near our home, four of my husband's father's siblings are buried, all of them deceased in their first year. In that family four of eight children survived to adulthood. His father, the youngest in the family was born in August 1918 just weeks before the great influenza pandemic swept the continent. Many people young and old died in this community. Medical knowledge, the development of drugs, and life saving interventions have decreased infant mortality and increased life expectancies dramatically. Flu vaccines keep the frail elderly alive in our nursing homes long past the time nature would have taken its course. My doctor Grandma always told me pneumonia was an old person's friend. I thought that was an awful thing to say, but now know what she meant. Babies born with congenital conditions incompatible with life are sustained with artificial feedings. It is no longer just "survival of the fittest". We are seldom confronted with the natural cycles of life and death and survival, especially as our society has moved largely from rural to urban centres.

Two of our five caterpillars will not become butterflies. This is a 40% failure rate on nature's part. One of the caterpillars was exceptionally small and instead of attaching only its tail end to the leaf with silk, attached the entire side of its body. It was unable to hang upside down and shrivelled up. Today, I watched as our last caterpillar started to shed its skin. But the process was not completed. One band did not split and it could not free itself of the outer covering. I tried to help gently with a pair of tweezers but could not save it.

These are nature's odds. They are compounded by man made risks. Driving on the highway yesterday, a Monarch butterfly crashed into my windshield and did not survive the blow. Our newspaper featured a recent report about this year's decline in Monarch populations, mainly due to pesticide use and loss of habitat.

I visited a natural area an hour west of home yesterday and saw many varieties of butterflies including Monarchs feeding among the wildflowers. Some will survive and reproduce successfully ensuring a new generation. Nature's balance is fragile but the odds are not impossible. But human alteration of the environment has brought more than one species to extinction. We have the knowledge and resources to protect and extend human life. We also understand the impact of our actions on the environment but the economic will to change is not always present.


  1. We need to learn to value all life, and not just that of our own species. Nature can be cruel enough; it needs no help in that way.

  2. very thought provoking post. I wonder if your 40 percent rate with the monarchs is similar to what is found in nature?

  3. Well said, Ruth. We do affect life in all forms. Just today, I wondered how many hummingbirds will make their trip successfully after I heard one crash against my house (unharmed).

    Great post.

  4. Hi Ruth,
    I had the same problem with 2 of my monarch caterpillars that were unable to turn into cocoons. And then this afternoon, one of my butterflies hatched, but its wings were deformed and never opened up. I was so sad because I know it won't live, but I took it outside to the sedum plant so at least it would have the chance to experience fresh air and sunshine before passing.

  5. I admire your post and your observations and comparisons and your words have created thought provoking reading.

    Your ongoing Monarch documentation is wonderful and your photos are excellent! Good luck in your continuation of it.

  6. I've loved following the saga -

  7. Wonderful post Ruth. I wonder what the next fifty years will look like...

  8. Ruth--I have long thought about the folly of an anthropocentric view of life on earth. Of course, that's hard not to do, but if humans were the only life form that mattered, or deserved being saved, then humans would vanish. It's as simple as that. But that lesson eludes far too many people.
    Thanks for reminding us in your gentle way.

  9. Wonderful post. We need to stop and think every now and then and we appreciate your guiding us.

  10. One very thought provoking post.........beautifully written.....and oh so very true.....

  11. good post and makes you think about gratitude. life itself is the gift!

  12. Your chrysalis photo is perfect. Monarch Butterflies amaze me in how such tiny, delicate insects can migrate so far.

  13. Wonderful post's true, we are nature's worst enemy...Love the photo where you can see the wings...

  14. I like your black and white photo in the graveyard.

    Interesting post! My husband has told me about the early influenza epidemic and how it devastated so many homes.

  15. AC- I am amazed at those with no respect for the environment. It is easy to become egocentric.

    Beth- I think the rates may change from year to year. My parents live in Mexico near where the Monarchs overwinter. Some years there are frosts high in the mountains where they are and many more that 40% die. The risks follow them everywhere.

    Mary- Windows are the cause of hundreds of thousand of bird deaths. Hummingbirds are so tiny and flitting that they may not hit a window as hard...I hope.

    Ruthie- You had many more caterpillars than I did, so your success rate was higher. My sample was too small for a statistically significant conclusion.

    Ann- Thanks for your kind comments. I hope the rest of the monarch raising is successful.

    Jean and Jayne- Thanks for commenting.

    KGMom- The world is much bigger than us, but many do not hear voices other than their own. So sad.

    NCMW, Cheryl and Marmee...Thank you for your visits. Life is so much enjoyable when we take time to observe the little miracles and beauty around us. And we do learn from seeing the failures of nature as well.

    Zhakee- I truly hope to visit their Mexican wintering area soon and understand their complete journey.

    RW- Those wings started to become visible the day after the caterpillar changed to a chrysalis. The transformation begins quickly.

    Africakid- The photo is of our daughter looking at the family tombstone in the First Mennonite Cemetery in our city. My husband's grandfather kept a daily diary for years and the details he wrote about the pandemic are so interesting...maybe a topic for another post.


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